By Kalevi Rantanen
Technology forecasts are being made today made more than ever before. The problem is how to make "good" predictions. This paper presents four cases showing how the tools of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) help to select among competing predictions.
TRIZ, patterns of evolution, laws of development, trends, foresight, prediction, anticipation, future studies, futurology, technology studies
In his work studying "innovation journalism," David Nordfors writes of the information technology (IT) bubble in the turn or the century, "If the IT innovation systems had been investigated by qualified innovation journalists with a systematic approach, the chances would have been greater that the players within the new economy would have been forced to moderate their behavior, perhaps decreasing the serious consequences."9
Not only journalists but also managers, investors and many others need to evaluate forecasts properly.
But how should a "systematic approach" be understood? How to "investigate innovation systems"? How to select the "right" predictions from the wrong? TRIZ provides tools to assist with forecasting; the forecast will most probably hit the mark, if the forecasted technology:
The following four cases describe situations in which it is necessary to choose between two mutually exclusive predictions:
Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil invented the first optical character-recognition program, the first text-to-speech synthesizer for the blind and the first flatbed scanner. In his books on artificial intelligence he correctly predicted the explosion of the Internet, the rise of wireless communication, the emergence of computer-controlled weapons and cars, and much else.
Kurzweil, along with and anti-aging specialist Terry Grossman, in 2004 predicted that within a quarter of a century, new bio-technologies will halt the aging process and nano-robots, will replace organs, including brains. Humans will be capable to live forever. Indeed, Kurzweil and Grossman promise on their website, "Immortality is within our grasp."7
Michael Shermer criticized their prediction in Scientific American, saying "immortality is at least a millennium away, if not unattainable altogether." Shermer, a science historian and the founder of The Skeptics Society, has investigated pseudo-scientific claims. In his Skeptic column in Scientific American he has published critical evaluations of weak and unscientific concepts. He has, for example, criticized too simple linear predictions of the evolution of technology, pointing out that, "history is highly nonlinear."14 Perhaps his prediction of immortality is correct, too?
The statements of a competent futurologist are juxtaposed against the no less qualified statements of a seasoned critic of elusive ideas.
The question itself is important. It makes sense to make a thought experiment. Consider what happens if nobody dies after the year 2030:
Perhaps these speculations will help to resolve more modest problems. By the predictions of the United Nations, 10-15 percent of the population by 2030 will be older than 65 years, in industrial countries 20-25 percent. In 1950, the figure was about 5 percent.
It is important to forecast the expected date of immortality – 2030 or a millennium from now?
The answer: The law of uneven evolution of systems means that the minimal levels of all relevant technologies are needed for innovation.1 Kurzweil's prediction is based on the rapid development of the one branch of technology – information processing. To reach immortality, much more is needed, particularly new discoveries and breakthroughs in biology, chemistry, neurology and other sciences. That is why Shermer's prediction is correct and Kurzweil's is wrong.
CEO Jeff Bezos advertised Amazon's new electronic reader Kindle in Newsweek in 2007: "The vision is that you should be able to get any book – not just any book in print, but any book that's ever been in print – on the Kindle, in less than a minute."6 Bezos definitely believes that people continue to read in the future.
Philosopher William Crossman said in The Futurist in 2007: "By the year 2050… all writing and reading will be replaced by speech and multisensory content." He makes it clear that there will be no text in the future.13
There is no room for a compromise; the two predictions exclude each other. Do humans stop reading by 2050?
The answer: Voice or video communication cannot totally replace reading.6 Both modes have their positives and negatives. The study of the patterns of evolution shows that interactions are increasing and new tools of communication are added to old ones.1,10 Why not use all available resources. Why not use the resources of the text?
The prediction of Bezos is right, Crossman's is wrong.
Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Robert H. Socolow and mechanical and aerospace engineering professor and Stephen W. Pacala propose a plan "to keep carbon in check." They suggest, for example, to add twice today's nuclear output, increase wind power 40-fold and increase solar power 700-fold to replace coal.15 Many people and whole countries, as Denmark, Sweden and Germany, however, have decided to abandon nuclear energy, and develop renewable energy (such as solar and wind power).
The question: Will mankind include nuclear power in the future's energy supply mix?
The answer: This case, although from a totally different industry, is analogous to the reading question. Nuclear energy plants need little fuel and produce cheap electricity, but they may cause radioactive pollution. The risks are, however, less than is generally thought. Hard coal causes 32.6 deaths per produced terawatt hour (TWh). The death toll of nuclear energy is next to zero, or 0.052 cases per TWh.8
Solar and wind power are cleaner, but due to the low intensity of energy flows, the price of electricity may be high. Nuclear and renewable energies each have advantages and disadvantages, and cannot be replaced by each other. Here, also, the concept of resources is useful. All energy resources will be needed – why not use nuclear energy, too?
That is why Socolow's and Pacala's proposition contains a correct prediction. The resistance against nuclear power will weaken over time.
Finnish writer Ilkka Hannula and Risto Linturi predict the following imaginary news item in 2020: "The client first selects a Feelies surrogate actor or actress. On the basis of this, the cyber-casket collects into its memory the sensual and environmental simulations registered from this subject's neural system, and this ‘neural implant' is conducted to the client in VR (virtual reality) suspension. In effect, the occupant of the casket lives passively the life of the chosen actor or actress."
The authors say "that at some time in the future we shall see 70 (percent) of the phenomena we have predicted coming our way within five years of the date we have offered." The "living dead" will be reality no later 2025.
Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, says, "It may be the twenty-second century before scientists begin to understand how the wiring of the brain is connected, let alone to be able tamper with it."5
The question: What date is more likely – 2025 or the 22nd century?
The answer: This is the same situation as in the case of immortality. Again the law of uneven evolution of systems dictates that there should be a minimum level of all the building blocks of technology.1,10 Computer technology may offer enough memory, but many other parts of the solution remain open. Biological, chemical and neurological knowledge, far more advanced than the science of this century, will be needed. Thus, Hannula's and Linturi's prediction is wrong and Kaku's is right.
There are many predictions available. Often it is not necessary to make a new prediction – one can pick a ready-made prediction.
To choose a good prediction, it is useful to compare opposing forecasts. The comparison compels the forecaster to make clear why, exactly, one prediction is better than another.
Kalevi Rantanen worked in Finnish youth organizations, primarily on problems of education, in the 1970s. From 1979-1985, he studied in the former USSR and earned his M.Sc in mechanical engineering and was introduced to TRIZ. Rantanen worked in Finnish industry until 1991, while also a TRIZ trainer. Since 1991, he has been an independent entrepreneur and has concentrated on science and technology journalism since 2002. Contact Kalevi Rantanen at kalevi.rantanen (at) kolumbus.fi.